Without a Home: Roots of metro Phoenix homelessness problem run deep

Jun 12, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 11:29 am

This is the first of a five-part series titled “Without a Home,” a KTAR News special report on homelessness in metro Phoenix. Tune to 92.3 FM all week for more in-depth coverage of the issue.

PHOENIX – The issue of homelessness in metro Phoenix has been a fixture in local and national headlines recently, but the complex problem has been growing for some time.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County increased by over 70% between 2017 and 2023, according to the point-in-time (PIT) census conducted by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) once a year.

Valley homelessness previously spiked during the Great Recession, which lasted from late 2007 until 2009. The PIT numbers then dipped and then leveled off, with the total remaining under 6,000 from 2011 to 2017.

People experiencing homelessness in Phoenix, Arizona. Exterior of Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, a shelter provider for people experiencing homelessness. Bunk beds for people experiencing homelessness at Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Day programming for men experiencing homelessness at Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Bar chart of Maricopa Association of Governments point-in-time homelessness count totals for 2017-2023. Graphic showing ethnicity of people experiencing homelessness in Phoenix, Arizona, metro region. Graphic showing sheltered vs. unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Phoenix, Arizona, metro region. Graphic showing number of people experiencing homelessness by city in Phoenix, Arizona, metro region.

Katie Gentry, manager of MAG’s Regional Homelessness Program, pinpointed 2018 as a turning point.

“That is when kind of that buckling really started to occur of more people starting to experience homelessness at a faster rate,” Gentry said.

Gentry said more businesses started coming to Arizona, which supercharged an already growing population, especially in metro Phoenix.

The region, however, didn’t have enough affordable housing to keep up with the demand. On top of that, the cost of living has been outpacing wage growth, making it harder and harder for people to maintain permanent shelter.

Individual factors such as drug use, mental health and medical emergencies also play a role.

“The reasons are endless, and each person honestly has multiple reasons for becoming homeless. … However, we know that with a lack of housing available, no matter what any of those different circumstances are, there’s nowhere for folks to go,” Gentry said.

The Maricopa County homelessness count has increased every year since 2017, reaching a record 9,642 in this year’s PIT census, which was conducted the night of Jan. 23.

Of the 2023 total, 49% were staying in shelters, transitional housing or safe haven programs, and the rest were living in the streets or other spots not meant for human habitation. While the overall count increased by 7% from 2022, the unsheltered number dipped by 2%.

Nearly 20% fell in the category of “chronic homelessness,” defined as at least one consecutive year of homelessness or four occurrences over the last three years. Chronic homelessness has doubled since 2017, including a 17% increase in the last year alone.

“We are seeing people experience homelessness for longer lengths of time because of the lack of resources available across the region,” Gentry said.

In addition to the PIT, the county started compiling a quarterly homelessness trends report a few years ago. The January-March 2023 report showed nearly 8,200 people experiencing homelessness, many for the first time.

“In March we saw 1,240 people experiencing homelessness for the first time, so that’s about 15 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the system,” Gentry said.

As housing costs have skyrocketed, older residents have been hit especially hard. The number of people 62 and older experiencing homelessness jumped by 21% over the last year, Gentry said.

“We are hearing anecdotally that a lot of those folks are because they are on a fixed income and can no longer afford their rent,” Gentry said.

Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), says the MAG data mirrors what she’s seeing in the shelters.

“This last year we served 30% more people than we served the year before,” Glow said. “We saw increases in service to our seniors, to our chronically homeless, to our veterans, to our youth.”

People are staying in shelters longer since the COVID pandemic, too, putting an emphasis on the need for more transitional housing in the region.

“We can’t build the permanent housing fast enough,” Glow said. “That’s a real challenge, so we’ve got to have more of the temporary places.”

Both Gentry and Glow believe that the response to a problem of this magnitude requires long-term collaborations that go beyond the homeless response system.

“We need help from faith leaders, business leaders, the community as a whole to say, ‘What can you do individually to ensure that we are helping to address this individual issue, but as a system issue?’” Gentry said.

Here is a list of resources to donate to organizations who serve those experiencing homelessness or if you or someone you know needs help.

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Without a Home: Roots of metro Phoenix homelessness problem run deep